At the beginning of April last season, Kirby Dach was mired in a nine-game funk with only one assist to show for it when Chicago Blackhawks interim head coach Derek King was asked about the young centre’s offensive potential.
“I think he’s still untapped,” King responded. “There’s offence there. Is he going to put up Patrick Kane numbers? I hope he does, but I just don’t see that coming. But he can be a solid two-way centreman and can put some numbers up. It’s not going to be off the charts, but this is something we’ll have to keep building on for him.
“Sometimes it’s hard for those young guys to accept that they’re only going to get 40 points in a year, not 60 or 70. But they don’t see the other side of it. The other side is he defends against the top lines, he plays well in his end, he gets out (on the ice) in crucial moments of the game.”
Was the groundwork being laid in Chicago to accept that the No. 3 pick from the 2019 draft would be no more than a 40-point player? That his defensive potential was his primary calling card?
When King provided that analysis, he didn’t know there were only four games left for Dach in a Blackhawks uniform because of further wrist issues that cut his season short.
Dach, who returns to Chicago for the first time Friday, finished his third NHL season with nine goals and 26 points in 70 games, a long way off from the 40 points his coach was talking about, and even further off the expectations for a third overall draft pick.
From the Blackhawks’ perspective, it might not be all that surprising that general manager Kyle Davidson decided to trade Dach coming out of his entry-level contract. As a restricted free agent, Dach would be seeking a raise, injuries had slowed his progression and some in the organization questioned his work ethic.
We can talk about the need for a new start, but why would a rebuilding team turn its back on a young player who would fit the timeline of the new direction the team was taking, one who began producing points as soon as he arrived with the Montreal Canadiens?
Davidson began a full rebuild for the Blackhawks and, rather than invest in a player the team no longer believed in, perhaps it was better to cut their losses and trade Dach while he still had value, landing the No. 13 pick at the 2022 draft and figuring when the Blackhawks are ready to be competitive again, they will have a Frank Nazar that is ready to start making an impact as opposed to one who is just about to hit unrestricted free agency.
That said, there is something counterintuitive about getting rid of such a young player after investing so much in him.
“If you give up on a player who is 21 years old, whether that’s in hockey or whatever, I think you haven’t shown a lot of patience, and you maybe don’t have the big picture in mind, or much of a growth mindset,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said recently. “When you’re 21, you’re still so young. Kirby was the third overall pick in the NHL only three years ago.”
Let’s look at two factors linked to the fact Dach is getting his footing in the NHL in his fourth season: arriving in the NHL at 18, and the development opportunities he was given.
In 2018-19, Dach’s numbers in the WHL were good, but not exactly dominant, and the Blackhawks might have taken him a few picks before most observers felt he should go.
“He’s tough, strong with the puck, skates really well for a kid his size, and has a big reach with that stick of his, which helps him not only in the offensive end, and in dirty areas, but defensively,” former Blackhawks director of amateur scouting Mark Kelley said after Dach was picked in 2019. “He doesn’t float back to his half of the ice. He breaks up plays. Complete package.”
Even before considering the injuries that hampered his first three seasons in the NHL, it is important to remember that Dach arrived at 18, at the same time as Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, the two players taken before him in 2019.
But when you reach a bit with a very high draft pick and then rush that pick to the NHL, there are expectations that are inevitably created because that level of confidence in the player from the organization gives the impression that it knows something about the young player that others on the outside might not.
In that sense, Dach’s case is somewhat reminiscent of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was taken by the Canadiens with the No. 3 pick the year before Dach. He was also drafted a bit earlier than predicted, was also compared to others who were drafted around him and also found himself at a contractual impasse at the end of his entry-level deal. In the last 10 years, Dach and Kotkaniemi are the only two forwards who arrived in the NHL at 18 and changed teams after only three years.
Over those 10 seasons, 27 forwards played at least 40 NHL games in their 18-year-old season, immediately after being drafted. When we look at their point-per-game production over their four first seasons, it is generally their third season where we see a significant bump.
But that is far from a hard rule, and even if the Blackhawks decided to move on from Dach after he failed to take that step in his third season, it was entirely justified for the Canadiens to jump on the opportunity to continue his development. By taking the gamble of signing Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet, the Carolina Hurricanes thought the same thing, only they took a costlier and far more dramatic route.
The Canadiens forward is currently producing at a rate of 0.85 points per game. After his 26 points in 70 games last season, Dach’s current pace would give him 14 goals and 59 points in 70 games this season. In other words, if he continues at his current pace, this could be considered Dach’s breakout season.
By fixing a somewhat arbitrary standard for a breakout season at 0.8 points per game (or a 65-point season over 82 games), we find that some of the 27 players noted above who reached the NHL at 18 needed more than four seasons to reach that breakout benchmark.
Breakout seasons can come later
Nico Hischier is one of those forwards who entered the NHL at 18 as the No. 1 pick in 2017. He had a nice rookie season, but injuries and other factors hindered his ability to really establish himself as a top-tier player until 2021-22, his fifth NHL season. To him, the outside expectations on 18-year-olds entering the league are sources of noise you have to learn to ignore.
“Take your time, focus on what the organization tells you, don’t focus on whatever you read about yourself, whatever people on the outside are saying about you, keep working on your game and do whatever you can to help the team win,” Hischier said. “It doesn’t always have to be with production. There’s way more to the hockey game than just goals and assists, and people that understand hockey they see that.
“You’re going to have pressure, that’s for sure. But on the other hand, some people don’t understand how hard it is. So you’ve just got to let them talk.”
Like Hischier, Dach believed he belonged in the NHL at 18. The notion that they would have benefited from an extra year at a lower level, an extra year to mature physically to better prepare for the rigours of the NHL, was dismissed by each of them.
“The Hawks thought I was ready at 18,” Dach said. “I mean, are you going to say no to playing in the NHL at 18? You’re allowed to get to your dream and play the game.
“I always felt like I was ready. That was always my mindset to be in the NHL at 18 and playing. COVID happened and injuries and all that stuff, and you can make excuses and say stuff, but there’s really no excuses. You just go out there and play the game, that’s what it comes down to. Everybody wants to play in the NHL as quick and as soon as possible, so it was a goal of mine to be drafted and then to be on that opening night roster.”
An 18-year-old is obviously happy to start learning the NHL game as soon as possible, but Dach is an example of the risk associated with expecting too much, too soon from these rookies.
In five of the six seasons between 2008 and 2013, at least five skaters – forwards and defencemen included – played at least 40 games in the NHL at 18. There were seven in 2007-08 alone. But since 2013, there has never been more than four in any one season. And this season, Canadiens winger Juraj Slafkovsky might be the only one to get there, just like Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cole Sillinger was the only one last season.
There is constant talk of how the NHL is a young man’s league and how teams need young players on cheap, entry-level contracts, but when it comes to 18-year-old players, the league is growing more and more conservative.
At this year’s Blackhawks training camp, captain Jonathan Toews, who had taken Dach under his wing, talked about his departure.
Jonathan Toews said he was angry at first about the DeBrincat and Dach trades, but that he’s come around and respects and understands what Kyle Davidson is doing.
Toews said Dach still has a lot of upside and “arguably maybe didn’t ever quite get his fair shot in Chicago.”
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) September 22, 2022
Except when you look at the fact Dach’s most frequent linemate the past two seasons were Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, and that Dach averaged 18 minutes of ice time those two years, Toews’ assertion could rightfully be questioned. On the other hand, keeping a young player on a tight leash while also putting pressure on him to produce is another way to not give him a fair shot.
“I think the biggest takeaway I have coming here is just to play free, be creative and use my instincts a little more, trust myself around the net and shoot little more pucks,” Dach said after signing his four-year, $13.45 million deal with the Canadiens on Sept. 7. “I’m just trying to break out of the past three years, put it behind me and focus on the positives going forward.”
There must have been motives that go deeper than point production that led the Blackhawks to want to move on from Dach. Our understanding is that there was some concern over his real desire to improve and push himself to become the best player he can be. By taking a chance on Dach, the Canadiens also took a chance on their player development tools that would help Dach take in information, incorporate it into his game and change. This goes back to the “growth mindset” St. Louis constantly talks about.
“There’s no such thing as being 100 percent certain in this business, but we believe he’s got a lot of potential and we believe in this environment — with our group, with our coach, with our development group, and the character of the locker room — that this is a better environment for Kirby Dach,” Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said when he signed Dach. “And in that environment, we’re comfortable that he’s going to achieve good things in the Montreal Canadiens organization.
“Do we know 100 percent? No. But we’re prepared to bet on it.”
Even if the Canadiens acquired Dach in the hopes of helping him become a top-six centre for them, the fact St. Louis has put him on the wing does not mean that hope will never be realized. This is one of the differences in how a move like that is interpreted in Montreal as opposed to Chicago.
It’s true that Dach continues to struggle in the faceoff circle, but St. Louis prefers having him develop other facets of his game and gains confidence playing on his top line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield rather than being dragged down by his failures on faceoffs. The position he plays matters less than allowing his assets as a hockey player to be linked to some form of production.
“He’s progressed very rapidly,” St. Louis said on Nov. 12. “And I think taking away some of the pressure of winning faceoffs all the time, I think he’s playing free because he doesn’t have that responsibility.”
Last year in Chicago, Kane and DeBrincat didn’t need to have Dach at centre to be effective, whereas with the Canadiens, Suzuki and Caufield are clearly more productive with Dach on the right side. Suzuki and Caufield’s advanced metrics with and without Dach speak for themselves.
“What makes our line successful right now is that each one of us can do the job,” Dach said. “Each one of us can be the shooter, each one of us can be the passer, each one of us can be the guy in the corner working in the trenches. It’s not as if we have a defined role on our line.
“Obviously Cole is more of a shooter than Nick and I both are. Even Nick and I are a little bit different playmakers, where I’m a big power forward type going in the corners and working hard, and Nick is more tactical and thinks the game at a really high level. So it’s different little skills that really add an intangible to our line that has been making it work so far.”
There are certain themes of the discourse around Dach in Chicago that remain there now, like faceoffs and the fact Dach doesn’t shoot the puck enough. He is not a perfect player, but at least the Canadiens appear to be taking the right approach with him, Dach appears to be receptive to it, and the gamble Hughes took on him looks like it has a good chance of paying off.
Dach was not a top-tier player when his entry-level contract expired with the Blackhawks. Maybe it was too early to say. Sometimes, it takes a bit more patience and persistence.
Dach arrived in Chicago to face the Blackhawks on pace to collect 70 points in 82 games this season. In other words, exactly the type of production Derek King said was beyond Dach’s reach just a few months ago.
(Top photo of Kirby Dach: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)